Archive for the ‘Beating the Odds’ Category

One of my favourite accounts on creativity

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Design on 2010/10/11 at 2:51 pm

Pablo Picasso painted a rare portrait of Gertrude Stein, his patron and friend, in 1906.  Despite some 90 sittings, Picasso completed the painting largely off-site, ending up with a figure with simple masses, and a face that bear more resemblance to an African mask.  It was a visionary work that pre-empted his radically-abstract cubist phase.  When someone commented that the painting did not resemble Stein, Picasso famously replied, “But… she will”!

Creative people alter the way we see the world.  They introduce the surprising, even shocking, alternative to the things we take for-granted as permanent and unchanging.  It must be said that it does not always work, but when it does, our world gets turned on its head.  Suddenly, we wonder how we had put up so long with the bad and the ugly.  Often, we even cry, “Why didn’t I think of that?”, or, “I could have done that!”.  But the sad fact is that we did not, and the truth is that creativity is much harder than it seems.

Creative designers are reconfiguring our world everyday.  They constantly re-visit old problems — such as the way we live, our furniture, clothes, and the tools we use — but frequently re-frame new ones — such as our response to climate change, the ageing population, and security; all striving to make our world a better, safer and happier place.

Choosing to be Painfully Generous

In Beating the Odds, Change, Education, Transformation on 2010/07/14 at 7:37 pm

Real generosity demands costly sacrifice, but has the power to change lives.  The contrary default costs little and yields correspondingly low impact and may even stifle.  It is an intentional choice to be painfully generous.

Let’s look at the easy default first.  My son’s secondary school principal told us in a matter-of-fact way that it is ok to have a “normal” kid who will not make university. She said, “after all, Singapore needs menial workers”.  We refused to believe her, pulled him out of her school, and tightened our belts to send him to a private college instead.  He graduated from university ahead of his “express” peers, and has recently received performance bonus and early promotion in a Singapore Statutory Board.  Generosity is critical to enhance unlimited human potential.  There is no excuse for principals, teachers and parents to doubt this.

I was deeply touched by the generosity of a lady who lost her husband and four others in a horrific accident on the Malaysian North-South highway recently.  She unhesitatingly forgave the driver of the lorry that had crashed into their MPV.  I reflected long and hard on what I would have done in a similar tragedy.  The default would be to seek “justice”.  It seems obvious, logical, and expected; not unlike the need for menial workers.  But she chose instead to break the cycle of blame and escalating the tragedy.  She was painfully generous.

Most of us default to the rational and logical most of the time.  We even refer, consciously or otherwise, to precedence and “best practices” at work or in life choices.  To be sure, progress and transformations in life can only come if we are strong and courageous enough to be painfully generous to help open the pathways of change.

Offside Rules Stifle Creativity

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Education, Simplicity on 2010/07/06 at 9:56 pm

The offside rule in football (soccer) dates back to the early 18oos.  It is designed to curtail creative moves by the advancing team by penalising its active player if he has the ball ahead of all but one of the defenders:

“Offside position: It is not an offence in itself to be in an offside position.  A player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.  A player is not in an offside position if he is in his own half of the field of play, or he is level with the second-last opponent, or he is level with the last two opponents.

Offence: A player in an offside position is only penalised if, at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by interfering with play, or interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by being in that position.

No offence: There is no offside offence if a player receives the ball directly from a goal kick, a throw-in, a corner kick.” — FIFA Laws of the Game

With improved ball-handling techniques and fitter players (who can cover over 10km in a game), the offside rule has become an increasing restriction to game flow and goal scores.  It may be time to ditch it and have the referees better spend their time watching the goal line instead.

Another offside rule that stifles creativity is arts-science streaming in schooling.  It generally goes by the rule that the academically inclined should pursue the sciences and downplay or even ignore the arts, which usually includes the humanities.  This ‘rule’ is becoming increasingly ridiculous in our multi-disciplinary world where creativity is best found in intersections of disciplines.

I was fortunate to escape the arts-science offside rule.  When I was studying for “o-Levels” in 1971 at a small public library in Kuching, Sarawak, I fortuitously came across a book on american architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  A picture of his “Fallingwater” house cantilevering over a waterfall at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, leap out the pages at me.  I remember rushing back to speak to my Principal, Nigel Heyward, about it.  He made an exception for me to study both science (physics, maths and chemistry) and art.  I went on happily to study architecture in Nottingham, England.  Needless to say, I am an advocate of removing the arts-science offside rule.

I have also not forgotten the librarian who probably went against the wisdom of the day by placing an architecture book in the midst of hard-core science and technology dominated bookshelves.  We need more such agents of creativity to beat offside traps.

Some things don’t change

In adaptability, Beating the Odds, Change, Design, Technology, Transformation, Vision on 2010/04/27 at 4:51 pm

Change can be extremely slow and surprisingly resilient. This of course can be a good or bad or indifferent thing. Apparently, the extinction of dinosaurs was due largely on their inability to change in time.

Take car design for instance. Consumer expectations on one hand and tough laws and regulations on the other have kept the car not that much different in the last 50-60 years. Practically all have ‘eyes’ (headlights) and ‘mouth’ (grille) even when new lighting and air intake technologies are available. They all have license plates, usually unceremoniously screwed into the bodywork. (I once saw the license plate of a Royce Royce fastened with a pair of rusting screws like those of everybody else!) . They all have wing mirrors and wind-shield wipers — the last frontier of innovation!  And they all have an assortment of disks and stickers on the wind-shield for road tax, club membership, season parking, etc.  All these are not about to change.  At the rate we are going, they may all be still around even when cars go air borne.

Some things don't change

Some things don't change

What about the house? When cars go air borne, the house will likely to be still brick-n-mortar, concrete-steel-glass.  Chairs will be chairs and tables will be tables. Why?

I was once on a construction site when the builders laughed at the oversized calculator that our Quantity Surveyor was using. “Surely you can afford a more compact calculator”, they said.  He replied, “but my fingers are not getting smaller!”

So, why is change so tough?  Perhaps because we are fundamentally conservative human; full of terrible as well as wonderful ‘flaws’.  For better or worse, get over it!

When Productivity is Nonsense

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Design, Productivity, Strategy, Value on 2010/03/05 at 11:37 am

The concept of “productivity” is a hangover from the industrial economy. Many try to ‘upgrade’ it to apply to the post industrial (knowledge and creative) economy but it is only as successful as putting aerofoil “spoilers” on a front-wheel-drive car — the downforce is on the wrong pair of wheels. Is the suggested obsolescence that bad?

In Singapore, the spotlight has swung on “Productivity” again. It was one of the most campaigned theme at one time (in the 70s) but has apparently lost it’s foothold despite decades of effort. The Economic Strategies Committee’s (ESC) report (see also my blog: “Design in Singapore’s Economic Strategies“) and the ensuing 2010 Budget and Parliament debate have resurrected the age-old issue again. But this is a different day and age.

The easy target of the productivity debate is cheap labour, usually synonymous with foreign workers, though not always. This is when the “less” in the classic productivity definition of “doing more with less” is achieved by lowering the cost of manpower. Never mind the headcount so long as we remain above the “bottom line”. Do or die. Technically, there is nothing wrong about lowering manpower costs, but, not surprisingly, this has social and political repercussions when the consequent of the ratio is foreigners.

But the antecedent of the productivity ratio is the more interesting. How can we increase the “more” in “doing more with less”? To some this simply means not being paid for overtime! To others it means increasing throughput by automation and info-comm; with or without reducing manpower. This, unfortunately, is what many think innovation is all about. Whether you factor in the overtime and the real (total) cost of automation, the balance-book productivity ratio must come up as a big number or you are still in trouble.

In the bigger scheme of things, productivity is a bit of a nonsense. Whilst it is important, and even crucial, to wring out of productivity all that it can yield in every way thinkable, there are aspects of the post-industrial economy that cannot be adequately addressed by the basic productivity equation.

First is the principle of “doing more with more”. The late Ng Teng Fong, a prominent real estate developer in Singapore and Hong Kong, said that he bided high for land because he could get even better returns from them later. Unlike a banker or trader who primarily depends on the market appreciation of value, the developer creates new demand and new value through intentionally good design.

Second is profitability. It is a different metric to productivity because it is no respecter of rules of the game. The competition for better profit margins and ROI goes beyond productivity, and has a life even after productivity levels off (which it always will). Through strategic design and innovation, the “rules of the game” can be changed to effectively eliminate competition. There are of course associated risks, but the potential opportunities of differentiation usually far exceeds the risks in slugging it out in the productivity battle arena.

Third is creative culture. Productivity is a particular nonsense in the heart of creative culture. It is unable to contribute to creative outcomes principally because it is calculative and pre-determined in nature, whereas basic creative culture tends to be speculative and qualitative. Productivity in architects’ and designers’ studios is limited to drawing and project management, and not anywhere near the critical design conceptualisation and design development stage (which wins the work in the first place). There will be an appropriate time for productivity issues to kick in when creative work are eventually executed in the ‘real’ world, but if the creative is not creatively competitive in the first place, productivity is nonsense.

A Tribute to Grandfather

In Beating the Odds, Creativity on 2010/01/01 at 12:10 am

Benjamin SYAWE (aka SIEW) Ah Khoon (c1886-1966) was my grandfather, ‘Kong Kong’. He was more than a survivor in tough times. He was a person who beat the odds. He then gave it back to society. He was creative. He was an inspiration. That is why I want to pay tribute to him in this my inaugural blog post today — 1 January 2010 — the first day of a new year and a new decade.

Syawe Ah Khoon was an orphan raised by Anglican missionaries in Kuching, the capital of the then British Crown Colony of Sarawak (which became one of the 14 States, including Singapore, that formed Malaysia in 1963). Because he was taught to read and write immaculate English by the missionaries, he immediately differentiated himself from the other immigrants. He was the natural choice when the British needed english-educated administrators. Syawe Ah Khoon rose through the ranks of government to become “Resident” of the district of Sarikei in the 3rd Division of Sarawak. There he performed a crucial role in receiving and regulating the immigrants that poured in from China to work the economy. In addition to many chinese dialects, he was also fluent in Iban, and was able to negotiate delicate settlements with the native Dayaks, who were not called “head hunters” for nothing! Syawe Ah Khoon was also active in the local school board, and even gave private english tuition to kids in the community — sharing the thing that enabled him to beat the odds in the first place. A road in Sarikei was named after him as a token of appreciation: Jalan Siew Ah Khoon.

Grandfather, 3rd from left

Syawe Ah Khoon was also a farmer, a family man and a fine christian. From the success of a pepper farm, he built himself a large multi-family home in Kuching (opposite the Carmalite monastery) which included the grounds of Borneo Sawmill, the timber business ran by his son-in-law. The house was home to all the families of three of his four children, their spouses and up to 9 of us grandchildren at one point. He also gave a sizable sum of money in 1956 to the anglican church — the people to raised him up — to build the bell tower of the St Thomas’s Cathedral, overlooking the Central Padang (city square now called Padang Merdeka) in Kuching. A plaque “To the Glory of God” can be found at the base of this tower.

One day around 1992 a shy Dayak family unknown to us turned up in my mother’s home in Kuching. They graciously introduced themselves and explained — with some emotion — that Syawe Ah Khoon had quietly sponsored their education and that they were here to express their gratitude. Grandfather had given them a way to beat the odds, change the game, just like the way the missionaries did for him as an orphan with practically nothing to go on. Was that creative or what?

See also Sarikei Time Capsule

Syawe Ah Khoon (seated 2nd from right)1928

Syawe Ah Khoon, 1951

Syawe Ah Khoon, 1940